Following years of service as the Director of the McNair Scholars Program at Northeastern Illinois University, Angela Vidal-Rodriguez began her term as Valpo’s Assistant Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (AVP for DEI) on Sept. 12.
“The vision for the Assistant Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is that I work with Enrollment Initiatives, that I work with students that are already at Valpo to bring a more coherent way to think about diversity in all aspects of the university,” said Vidal-Rodriguez. “I think that's how the position was created, and the description of the position was to have an advocate for diversity for all aspects in the university, to have a cheerleader for diversity and also to help advance diversity, equity and inclusion in all those aspects.”
The McNair Scholars Program seeks to increase the number of underrepresented students earning PhDs and completing higher education programs. After studying economics in Mexico and coming to America, Vidal-Rodriguez realized her passion for higher education and increasing representation for students like her.
“When I came to the United States I did a masters here at Northeastern Illinois University [NEIU], and I was a Graduate Assistant for Student Life, and I really enjoyed working with college students… Then I got a position in higher education at a university that works especially with underrepresented groups. My university [NEIU] has like 70% of the students who have a Pell Grant, and around 60% are first generation, meaning that their parents didn't go to college. So I started working with them on the academic side, preparing them with research skills and preparing them to go to graduate school,” Vidal-Rodriguez said.
While completing her PhD in Higher Education at the University of Michigan, Vidal-Rodriguez developed a new perspective on how universities function and the areas where they were failing to boost student success.
“I started studying the universities as an organization. I saw that they were very complex organizations, and that what we do as a staff, as faculty members had a huge effect in scholars' development. I said, ‘Okay, how can we make colleges and universities better, and how can we develop the students better?’ That's more or less what drove me to higher ed, the experience that I had in higher education working with the students, and then studying it very deeply about what things we can do as an organization to make experience even better,” Vidal-Rodriguez said.
Working in universities with the McNair Scholars Program and student bodies that consisted of large proportions of underrepresented students inspired Vidal-Rodriguez to focus her work in higher education on diversity, equity, and inclusion. After being advised by her mentor to delve into research surrounding the origins of structural racism and inequalities, she became even more passionate about working to improve higher education.
“I decided that if I continued in higher education I wanted to keep making the organization better to serve underrepresented groups. The other thing that I like about DEI is that when I came to this country, I came as an undocumented immigrant. I started working in kitchens, I started working in cleaning houses, all those jobs that usually undocumented immigrants get in United States, so I was able to live the life of the parents of the students that I was going to serve in the future,” Vidal-Rodriguez said. “I learned how many obstacles and how hard life could be and at the same time all the hopes they have to give a better life to their kids, to their families, how they work to make this happen. Some of them have two or three or four jobs at the same time they are trying to take care of their families. So I was able to see that a lot of underrepresented people face a lot of obstacles. Structural obstacles that didn't allow them to lead to their full potential.”
With her passion for understanding the past and how minority groups have been pushed out of higher education, Vidal-Rodriguez’s role as AVP for DEI strives for advancement and fuels a deeper purpose for her as an individual.
“I thought that my work as a professional person should be focused on helping others. So I always wanted to help others, and I saw how education could change the lives of the students because I was doing it, and it couldn't change everything and fix all societal problems, but at least I could reach some of these students and help them develop. Getting degrees and getting graduate degrees will help their future families or kids and the generations to come to have a better life,” Vidal-Rodriguez said. “I made a personal commitment that I wanted to use my knowledge, I wanted to use my experience, I wanted to use my energy to keep helping students, so I thought that diversity, equity and inclusion will allow me to bring together my interest in higher education and also my purpose as a human being of helping others together. So that's how I decided that this field was a good field for me as Angela.”
As more underrepresented students begin college, Vidal-Rodriguez feels higher education institutions have reached a turning point towards creating more inclusive environments.
“All universities, all colleges in the whole United States should be paying attention on how to serve them [underrepresented students] better. I thought that Valpo would give me that experience, because it is a predominantly white institution. However, you have seen a growth in underrepresented student enrollment. I thought that if we can make Valpo a welcoming and inclusive environment and we can also make sure that our underrepresented students are graduating, then it will be a good example for all institutions in other parts of the country that have similar characteristics that are located in a state or regions that might not have been always open to these groups and welcoming to these groups. I think that's very important in the historical moment that we're living right now in the United States that has grown in divisiveness,” Vidal-Rodriguez said.
As the AVP for DEI, Vidal-Rodriguez oversees the Office of Multicultural Programs (OMP).
“The first thing that I want to do is to make sure, right now, since there have been so many transitions, is that the Office of Multicultural Programs keeps serving students as it was serving before... I think it's important to see what has been done, and make sure that I understand it really well to see how we can improve it. Maybe there's things that I have done in my previous jobs, in my previous experiences that can make things better, but I would like to do that after I get to know really well what has been done before, and what is the university community thinking or ideas about what can be done to improve the office,” Vidal-Rodriguez said.
A major purpose of the AVP for DEI position is to continue progress on the Action Agenda for Promoting Racial Equity and Inclusion.
“How it [the action agenda] influenced my decision, is that if Valpo communities are already thinking that way, I want to be part of that process. I want to bring my help, my expertise, my experience to make that happen. I want to help all the different task members to implement it. So now, the action agenda is a plan and how I see my role is to help implement it and improve it and keep it alive,” Vidal-Rodriguez said.
Another vital part of Vidal-Rodriguez’s work is co-chairing the Presidential Commission for an Inclusive Valparaiso Community (CIVC) Committee and Biased Incident Response Team.
“We have a Bias Incident Committee and then we have the Care and Concerns Committee… Depending on the incident is the measurements that we take. But usually what I've seen and that's what I like about also, too, is that a lot of the incidents, and a lot of those problems are worked through a process that is a restorative justice process. We try to make sure that we hear how harmful these incidents are and how they can impact the students, and we try to make people that were on the other side of the incident understand how harmful the actions are and try to come to a common agreement on how it is that we can restorate a welcoming environment, how we can change behavior to create a welcoming environment. So, that is happening already at Valpo, and my role is to make sure that I understand these incidents...” Vidal-Rodriguez said. “We don't want those patterns to keep happening, but we want to make sure that the institution thinks [about] how we can stop these patterns from happening. Can we educate more students, can we work with the community at-large, who needs to be involved in this conversation, are there new policies or programs or activities that we can create to stop these kinds of incidents, and also how, what can we do to understand where they're coming from? So to have a better understanding of what is driving these incidents and to see if we can solve the driver too.”
Additionally, the AVP for DEI position now has a seat as a member of the President’s cabinet.
Per President Padilla’s announcement email from Aug. 31, “In that role, she [Vidal-Rodriguez] will also attend all Board of Directors’ meetings, including the Campus Life Committee. She will also be a member of the university’s strategic planning committee.“
This opportunity signifies the importance being placed on DEI work by campus administration.
“So DEI, for what I understood, in my limited time at Valparaiso is that DEI had always had a voice, not in the President’s Council, but pretty high. Before me that was Vice Provost of Diversity and Inclusion. So DEI has always been important for Valpo, and one of the things that I like about this system is that they bring that voice to the executive level. So now that DEI has a voice in the President's Council, I can work even closer with all the different divisions that make the university work. I think that talks really well about the current administration, that it gives importance to bring in that lens of diversity, equity and inclusion in the things that we do daily, or the ones that we are planning in the future,” Vidal-Rodriguez said.
Looking ahead in her role, Vidal-Rodriguez has several goals she hopes to accomplish in order to benefit the students at Valpo and create a brighter, more inclusive future.
“I want the students to feel that they have somebody that listens to them, especially the diversity, equity and concerns… I want the students to know that there is an open door policy, not only in the Office of Multicultural Programs but also with my office. That is an important part of the goal that I want to bring. The same goes for faculty members. So something that I explained to faculty and staff and other people doing diversity, equity and inclusion work,” said Vidal-Rodriguez. “Sometimes the solutions that we have to find for concerns of diversity, equity and inclusion have to be very creative and are always looking at the institution itself. So maybe solutions that are good for Valpo might not be solutions good for all the institutions. That kind of creativity on those kinds of local solutions, as they call them, can only be created when we have the voices of many institutional members, and my goal is that faculty and staff feel that... they can share their ideas about how to make the institution more inclusive and more equitable. I bring many ideas but I want them to know that it's gonna be a discussion, and hopefully we can create things together.”
Vidal-Rodriguez ultimately aims to make Valpo more welcoming,
“Diversity, equity and inclusion is an ongoing work, because some issues will appear with time. Right, some issues that maybe we didn't think about, some issues that may be raised by new faculty members or by new students. I want the institution to know that we should be working on diversity, equity and inclusion constantly and evolve as society. And the interest of the students are evolving, the same with faculty and the same with staff. So those are some of the goals that I have in mind right now,” said Vidal-Rodriguez. “The other goal is to make sure that underrepresented students or underrepresented faculty feel that Valpo is a good organization for them. That we are sophisticated enough to bring voices, or everybody's voices to the table and the university is able to evolve with our student body. We, our faculty body, and the organization are prepared to have discussions, and communicate in a way that they always feel included.”